Bridging the Gap: Hilma af Klint & Abstraction

“DISRUPTING ART HISTORY”

Borrowed from the title  Discover the Visionary Artist – disrupting Art History, (Hilma af Klint exhibition 2021, NSW Art Gallery, Sydney.)

From obscurity to centre stage, Hilma af Klint is fast becoming a familiar name and increasingly recognised as one, if not the first, pioneer of abstract painting.

In 2013, art historian Julia Voss, who has written extensively on af Klint said,

we value abstract art as a freedom of expression we would not want to live without .. and Hilma af Klint discovered it in 1906.

A substantial amount of Hilma’s abstract work predates the purely abstract compositions of Kandinsky and Malevich, often cited as the “founder fathers” of abstraction.

Hilma af Klint (1862 – 1944)

Hilma af Klint (1862 – 1944) from Sweden, was one of the first women to graduate from the Stockholm Royal Academy where she displayed an immense talent as a landscape and portrait painter – working in a conventional representational style. From 1887 -1905 Hilma worked and lived as professional artist. As opposed to so many other female artists of the same era, she was not restricted by her family and social group, nor was she as a woman, ignored by the larger painting fraternity.

For Hilma, her challenges came from within as her work dramatically evolved to reflect her spiritual and philosophical beliefs. She was a member of  de Fem The Five – a group of women who followed the Theosophical movement founded in 1875 by Madame Blavatsky (Ukrainian born  / USA resident from 1874). In time Hilma was considered the central mystic force of the de Fem group and she referred to herself as both a mystic and an artist. Interestingly, Mondrian, Kandinsky and Malevich were also proponents of Madame Blavatsky’s writings. Hilma’s paintings and copious notes and diagrams are a visual representation of these complex philosophical ideas – untethered from any recognisable references to the physical world.

In her own words, Hilma best explains these ideas –  all of the knowledge that is not of the senses, not of the intellect, not of the heart but is the property that exclusively belongs to the deepest aspect of your being ….the knowledge of your spirit.

But why have so few people heard of Hilma af Klint?

Why does she not appear in the extensive narrative that tracks and discusses abstraction in all its complexities and global nuances?

The answer is not as we might have expected – it is not entirely a gender issue, though  we must ponder if Hilma’s work would have been more readily accepted had she been a male artist.

Early sources suggest that Hilma hid her work, instructing a family member not to show it for some twenty years after her death when she believed the world would be more receptive to her ideas. Although true, this statement is not entirely accurate as there is documented evidence of her participating in several exhibitions, including the 1928 London exhibition of the Anthroposophy Society which included some of Hilma’s spiritual abstracts. In the main however, her work remained unknown, unseen, and unrecognised until 1986 when they were shown in a landmark exhibition, The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890 – 1985, Los Angeles.

THE TEN LARGEST, NO.3 YOUTH, GROUP IV,1907 (detail)

I have become completely fascinated with this woman. Hilma abandoned a successful art career complete with patronage, sales and commissions, recognition, and kudos as the first female graduate of the Stockholm Art Academy to purse a life as a mystic and an artist. Hilma gave up everything to follow her true convictions and produce the type of art that she felt compelled to do through her spiritualism. Further to this, Hilma recognised that the world was not ready for her abstract art and its integral message. Her countless notebooks reiterate this over and over. Hilma’s spiritual transformation cannot be separated from Hilma the abstraction artist.

NOTE BOOK (detail)

Hilma’s conviction and faith is inspiring. Through my extensive research, I feel that Hilma af Klint is still leading us as we slowly peel back the layers of the discovered vast volume of her work. Her confidence and self-awareness are palatable. Publication of Julia Voss’s article (2013) kindled widespread interest in Hilma af Klint whose work is now viewed through a feminist lens and is celebrated for taking up a style that has historically been seen as pioneered by men.

INITIATING PICTURE, SERIES V111,1920

It is said that Hilma’s work turned art on its head, making the invisible visible. Perhaps we can say this about female artists in general who through the ages have remained largely invisible. Certainly, Hilma af Klint  has redefined the language of abstraction and is a “bridge” in so many ways.

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